May 15, 2021
Willie O’Ree made his National Hockey League debut for the Boston Bruins in 1958. Played two impact less games before being sent back to Quebec City. He resurfaced three seasons later with the Bruins, played in 43 games and scored four goals. Among them the first scored by a Black NHLer. Those were the only games played by O’Ree, now a Hockey Hall of Famer as a builder and ambassador to the sport at the age of 85.
Some history. O’Ree’s great grandfather was sold into slavery after the American Revolution. While the country was winning its freedom, Paris O’Ree was losing his. He escaped a plantation via the underground railroad to Canada, where in Ontario, slavery had been outlawed a good 70 years before the United States got around to it. Three generations later, Willie grew up in Fredericton. Played hockey from the age of three but didn’t skate in an indoor rink until 15 years later.
O”Ree overcame a serious hockey injury that cost him the sight in his right eye, which would also have cost him any chance at playing in the NHL had his doctor divulged it. He didn’t. O’Ree became a trail blazer playing hockey half blind. There wouldn’t be another Black player in the NHL for fourteen seasons.
Then there was Jerome Iginla, Grant Fuhr and P.K. Subban. And last Monday, Daniel Walton was promoted from the Syracuse Crunch and joined Tampa Bay’s Mathieu Joseph and Gemel Smith to form the first all-Black forward line in the NHL. A feat met with great notoriety. Which is why we shouldn’t forget how it all began.